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Polio is spreading globally and the infectious virus is threatening people in more countries, per the World Health Organization (WHO). The number of polio cases this year and countries seeing the virus have increased after being nearly eradicated worldwide.
The WHO has called the spread a world health emergency. This is a very different message than two years ago, when the virus, which can cause paralysis, was almost eliminated worldwide thanks to a 25-year effort to vaccinate billions of children.
Polio, which is short for poliomyelitis, is a highly contagious virus that mostly affects children under age 5. Breathing muscles become immobilized and lead to death in 5 to 10 percent of afflicted children. One out of 200 winds up with an irreversible paralysis.
In 2013, polio was endemic in only three countries – Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria. Those countries have allowed the threatening polio disease to spread beyond their borders into more countries, per the World Health Organization
Polio spread from Pakistan to Afghanistan, from Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea and from Syria to Iraq, according to the WHO. The cases in Syria were the first in 15 years, and reflect the disruption of public health services and vaccines because of the civil war. In Pakistan, a three-year-old girl is reportedly the first case seen in the capital, Kabul, in 12 years.
Four other nations have seen polio infections or detected the virus in sewage, but the disease is not spreading among the population currently: Ethiopia, Israel, Nigeria and Somalia. In Israel, the virus has reportedly been discovered in sewage systems in Tel Aviv, Ofakim and Baka El-Garbiya. The country is aggressively vaccinating children now to prevent a large outbreak.
The WHO does not have enforcement power. However, through a 2007 global health treaty they declare public health emergencies, like this one, and get involved in controlling epidemics, such as their participation in the fight against Ebola and recommendations issued on controlling polio.
The WHO declared the polio emergency even through the total number of cases worldwide in 2014 is only 68. The concern is that there were only 24 by this time last year and the virus was spreading during months when it is not normally seen. Their goal is a coordinated international effort to stop the spread before in normal transmission season in May and June.
The WHO urged Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon to vaccinate anyone traveling outside of their country – and carry an International Certificate of Vaccination. They specified that this policy be retained until one year after the last case exported from their country. They would also like them to get residents vaccinated as well, but recognize the political situations in Pakistan and Syria particularly make it unlikely. The WHO did encourage the other seven countries affected by polio right now to get their travelers vaccinated, but did not require it.
The resurgence of polio – like the resurgence of measles and whooping cough in the U.S. – is exacerbated by not getting vaccines. Vaccination campaigns have been highly successful. India, for example was declared polio-free in March after an aggressive immunization effort. But, in areas wrought by conflict and political strife, public health efforts have been compromised or stopped, per the World Health Organization, leading to the current situation with polio threatening more countries.
By Dyanne Weiss